Women refuse to be silenced by Robert Mugabe

It happened in the blink of an eye and with military precision. At precisely 1pm a handful of women walked to the middle of a busy junction in central Harare and began chanting antigovernment slogans.

Scores of other women lurking on the nearby pavements streamed in to join them, hoisting placards demanding action to end the cholera epidemic.

Within two minutes a demonstration by 200 women was marching exuberantly along a crowded Kwame Nkrumah Street, chanting, singing and handing out flyers denouncing the “corrupt, incompetent and illegitimate” regime of President Mugabe.

It was electric — a rare public demonstration of resistance in the capital of a cowed and broken country. Crowds on the pavements looked on admiringly and grabbed the flyers, although few plucked up the courage to join in.

The women marched only as far as the UN Development Programme office — a few hundred yards. They presented a petition demanding greater international assistance to combat cholera because the Mugabe regime was so inept.

Then they vanished, melting back into the lunchtime throng as rapidly as they had gathered. By the time the security services arrived they found only flyers blowing along the pavements.

The demonstration by Woza — Women of Zimbabwe Arise — lasted barely ten minutes and was ignored by the state-controlled media in the country, but that was not the point.

The onlookers would have taken the flyers home and passed them to friends. Word of the defiance would have spread rapidly through the oppressed townships in Harare.

It was reported on the websites from which so many Zimbabweans learn what is really happening. It would have encouraged the downtrodden at a time when hope scarcely exists, and that is exactly what Jenni Williams intended.

Mrs Williams, 46, the feisty granddaughter of an IRA veteran and an Ndebele woman he met while gold prospecting in Rhodesia, is the founder of Woza and a remarkable woman in her own right.

She started the organisation in 2002 to resist the increasing human rights abuses of the Mugabe regime by non-violent means.

“We saw that the crisis in Zimbabwe was affecting mostly women, and women were silent,” she told The Times this week. “So we said, ‘Come on, women, let’s do something and show Zimbabweans they can speak out and live to tell the tale’.”

Mrs Williams has lived to tell the tale, but only just. By 2003 her husband, an electrician, and three children had decamped to Britain, mainly at the insistence of her mother-in-law after police arrested Mrs Williams, raided her home and threatened to have her two teenage sons “re-educated” by the youth militia of Mr Mugabe’s Zanu (PF) party.

She has since been arrested 32 more times, spent a total of three months in filthy police cells and been tried and acquitted three times.

This year she and Magodonga Mahlangu, 31, her fellow leader, have spent six weeks in the infamous Chikurubi prison in Harare for demonstrating against the political violence of the election period, and three weeks in the equally grim Mlondolozi prison in Bulawayo for demanding action against hunger.

They led that second demonstration only a day after a judge dismissed the charges from the first case, and face trial next month on charges arising from the second.

Mrs Williams lives in safe houses in Bulawayo and Harare, moving every two or three months, training more activists and planning the next lightning demonstration.

She could have joined the millions of other Zimbabweans who simply left the country. Instead she chose to send her family to Liverpool while she stayed and fought.

“This is my home. This is my children’s home. I am here making Zimbabwe liveable so they can come home and have a future and my husband can get a job,” she said. “My family are extremely committed … I survive on the money they send me. They know my role.”

She is sustained by her commitment to the cause and sense of progress. “Locally, regionally and internationally we are torchbearers for human rights. We have made injustices visible. Whenever they arrest us we make it cost them in terms of the reputation of the Government,” she added.

Woza has grown rapidly to have 75,000 members and has won international human rights awards.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, named Mrs Williams one of her ten “women of courage” last year. For all their success, however, the ultimate prize – the removal of Mr Mugabe – remains elusive because there are too few Zimbabweans as bold as Mrs Williams. Battered, terrifed and starving, they will not rise up.

The regime is “weaker than it’s ever been, but the missing link is the people”, she said with evident frustration. “We live in hope. Mugabe is five days away from being removed if the people do something. But they are too good at being victims.

“We’ve taken to insulting them. We say, ‘even the frog eventually jumps out of the sewage pond’.”

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/africa/article5321378.ece



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